Northern Exposure

Snugged away in a remote fishing shack in northern Minnesota, a burly loudmouth named Junior laments to his fellow ice-anglers that citified "income poops" have made a mess of the frozen lake that he and his Woolrich-clad pals consider their sacred refuge. In addition to spawning schools of cappuccino-sipping, tofu-nibbling types, he says, the artificially mobile urban dwellers have brought along other, more odious cultural elements -- like artists bent on turning everyone's life into a metaphor. "And once you're a metaphor," Junior blusters, "you can't do anything without meaning something."

Funny that the wisecracking Junior should make that remark just moments before the main character in The Ice-Fishing Play relates a wistful and sentimental tale that's as profound as a haunting, boreal glow radiating beneath an evening squall. As the middle-aged Ron comes face-to-face with the ghosts of his friends and relatives, native Minnesotan Kevin Kling's charming play imparts the sort of temperate wisdom that arises when a group of beer-swilling outdoorsmen swap beliefs and fears (in that unmistakable Great White North twang) while in pursuit of the ever-elusive big one.

Although the Aurora Fox Theatre's production initially resembles a plodding, realistic saga, director Terry Dodd's sure, tender touches transform the play into a surreal odyssey about serendipitous relationships and the fickleness of life. As the two-hour tale begins, Ron (Paul Page) keeps a semi-watchful eye on the fishing poles he's positioned above a pair of holes cut in the cabin's ice floor and an attentive ear turned to the radio-show ramblings of Tim and Paul, who squawk about the latest storm of the century. Sounding like SCTV's MacKenzie brothers, the upbeat duo punctuates its reading of school closings ("Black Duck, private and parochial" is a typical refrain) with waggish comments and truncated fish stories. Though seemingly benign, their recorded banter is one of the play's few constants: As we're haphazardly transported between episodes from Ron's past, present and future, Tim and Paul's dutiful droning periodically reminds us that, no matter how humdrum or perplexing, life does indeed go on.

With Scrooge-like wonderment, Ron weathers a series of strange visitations. He welcomes two Panama-hat-wearing missionaries, Francis (Charles Kolar) and Shumway (Matthew Dente), who have evidently heeded too strictly Christ's command to give away all that they own -- including their overcoats. The shivering proselytes try to convince Ron that "the great climax is at hand" but manage only to provoke a humorous debate about which actor played which biblical screen legend. After they leave, Ron's long-dead brother, Duff (Mark Middlebrooks), shows up, offers him a sip of homemade sauerkraut schnapps and urges him to do the family proud by landing the lake's legendary monster fish. Later, their mutual friend Junior (Stephen Maestas) offers to help Ron by spraying a can's worth of human scent repellent on a garish green lure called The Enticer. That, combined with Junior's phobia about urinating in front of other men, underscores Ron's apt observation that "if stupid had weight, [Junior] would be through the ice a long time ago." Throughout, Ron's wife, Irene (Karen Erickson), appears to discuss family concerns and, during one scene, put the finishing touches on her cabin replica of the Sistine Chapel ceiling. (In this case, instead of meeting Adam's finger, God's outstretched hand is a fishing rod with a trophy-sized walleye on the hook.)

With perfectly drawn out O's and a seemingly native ability to shoot down highfalutin ideas with a gliding, three-note "Yah," Page renders a convincing and gratifying portrait of the armchair-philosophizing Ron. He lends warmth and complexity to Ron's love-hate relationship with emotional closeness. And Page artfully balances pathos with humor when Ron recounts his father's "magical" ability to turn out all the lights in the surrounding countryside merely by waving his hand after Walter Cronkite signed off at ten o'clock. "We all had the same heartbeat then," whispers Page. "Now it all seems crazy." A few minutes later, the character of Young Ron (Scott Merchant) enters and locks eyes with his forebear in a gaze that communicates a man's wish to reorder his youth, as well as a father's heartache that his son must experience certain rites of passage that will toughen him to the world's cruelties. It's a moving, beautifully realized prelude to the play's disquieting conclusion -- and is also a testament to director Dodd's ability to cultivate a sense of camaraderie between actors of disparate ages and backgrounds.

Despite the fact that their characters' presence seems more contrived than inspired, Kolar and Dente make a fine pair of messianic dopes. As the perpetually incredulous yet low-key Duff, Middlebrooks looks and sounds as though he just stepped off the bus after a long ride from Duluth; he's also as genuine a brother as Ron could hope to have. Though Irene has more emotional ground to cover than all of the other supporting characters combined, Erickson navigates the highs and lows without taking any of them to the extreme of caricature. Maestas has some problems with his accent, but he at least suggests Junior's obtuse and grating ways. And Charles Dean Packard's evocative setting makes maximum use of the Fox's expansive upstage and forestage sections while fostering an atmosphere of intimacy.

Kling's play might not be the stuff of great art, and the final image may prove too disturbing for some. But Dodd and company succeed in wresting every shred of humanity from it -- and nearly every laugh. And when it comes to the actors' overall attempts to remain authentic in speech and behavior, "You betcha!"

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Jim Lillie

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